JIM BROWN, MOVIE STAR: THE SPLIT and THE SLAMS

March 20, 2012

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Jim Brown retired from the National Football League in 1965, after nine seasons of transcendent athleticism. “For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith. Brown was only thirty years old when he shockingly hung up his spikes, but he never much cared about public opinion. Instead of exposing his body to more pounding (he never missed a game in his astonishing career), he entered the comfier confines of the movie business, where stuntmen will happily take beatings for you. In his debut, Gordon Douglas’ fine Western Rio Conchos (1964, I wrote about it here), he establishes the quiet tough guy routine he would soon build upon. It was with The Dirty Dozen (1967) that he became a bankable name, and Brown knew it, as  it was during production of that blockbuster that he announced his retirement from football. He went on to star in close to twenty films over the next decade, and the Warner Archive recently released a sample of this output on DVD, four works from 1968 – 1973: The Split (1968), Kenner (1969),…tick…tick…tick (1970) and The Slams (1973).

Brown churned out three ensemble action movies in 1968, slowly moving his way up the credits. He provided solid support in the violent mercenary film Dark of the Sun and cold-war submarine adventure Ice Station Zebra, but it wasn’t until November of that year, in The Split, that Brown gained top billing. Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had produced Point Blank for MGM the previous year, and sought to replicate its success by again adapting one of Richard Stark’s (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) crime novels featuring the ruthlessly efficient thug, Parker. John Boorman’s icy stylization on Point Blank was replaced by the anonymous workmanship of  British TV director Gordon Flemyng, who brought Stark’s The Seventh to the screen. Retitled The Split, it also changes the no-nonsense Parker’s name to McClain, played by Jim Brown.

Just out of prison, McClain is eager to take on a new job. He’s tipped to the heavy amount of cash flowing through the Memorial Coliseum during Los Angeles Rams games, and begins assembling a team to snatch it. The heist goes off with nary a hitch, but soon the money goes missing, and the crew starts turning against each other to find the cause.

Stark’s books excel in breaking down the brute mechanics of crime, of the intricate processes and rituals involved, from the punchy language of black market firearms deals to the nitty-gritty of pawn shop cons. The Split is a cartoon version of the novel, replacing process with pizzazz. This would be a disaster except for the eager cast, which is a motley collection of odd-faced acting talent. The team that McClain puts together is played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland, with Gene Hackman as the cop sent to take them down.  Each is given one characteristic to play with, and they mug it to the hilt. Borgnine is the hot-headed muscle, Klugman the anxious wheelman, Oates the antic lock-picker and Sutherland an aesthete sniper. Brown puts each through a gauntlet of ridiculous tests to prove their worthiness, like running Klugman off the road and drop kicking Borgnine.

When not involved in some spectacular fight scenes, Brown is tentative in the lead, still clinging to his early roles as a quietly monotonal badass. He hasn’t yet developed the deadpan humor that would so invigorate The Slams, so he tends to fade into the background when next to his engagingly over-the-top castmates. But when the fists start flying, he is the one who overwhelms. The bout between Brown and Borgnine is a classic office smashing bruiser, a slugfest so brutal that Borgnine recalled, “I actually got my head bashed in because he took things a little too seriously.”

Brown was nothing if not serious, and always took offense to his films being described as “Blaxploitation.”  He told David Walker that, “the word is basically irrelevant… Whenever you sign a contract to play a role and make money, you’re exploiting yourself. Nobody else is exploiting you.” Later, he quipped, “You could say that James Cagney was white exploitation, or John Wayne, because they did action films, they made money, and they were major stars.” For Brown then, these were very lucrative “self-sploitation” movies, although ones in which he could play “roles that had never before been played by black actors.” In simply being the leader of an otherwise all-white ensemble in The Split, he was breaking ground, gaining a position of power where he could sell-out more than any white actor could dream of. This was a practical kind of equality he could believe in, which also allowed him to found organizations like the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, to stimulate investment in black-owned businesses.

In Kenner and …tick…tick…tick, Brown tried to expand his limited range. In Kenner, he played a merchant seaman in Bombay, trying to track down a man who conned him out of case. Instead he gets mixed up with a street kid, and a tender relationship develops. In …tick, he tries his hand at social drama, as Lilies of The Field director Ralph Nelson plops him into an In the Heat of the Night style anti-racism drama, in which he plays a sheriff caught in the middle of a brewing race war. These are rather stodgy films, obvious in their emotional manipulations, but Brown continued to get more comfortable as a performer, developing a relaxed charm to go with his intimidating physicality.

By the time of The Slams (1973) Brown could really command the screen, introducing a looseness and humor to his strong silent type that no longer needed an ensemble to carry a film. The film originated when Gene Corman (brother of Roger) was inspired to make a film based on the 1970 “Soledad Brothers” incident, when three black inmates at Soledad Prison in California killed a white guard, in retaliation for the shooting deaths of three inmates. Corman had interest in casting Diana Ross as Angela Davis, who advocated on the Brothers’ behalf, but that never came to fruition. The film that was made has almost no relation to the original incident, aside from scenes of racial tension in prison. Corman had just made the successful Blaxploitation film Hit Man, so tailored The Slams to feature as much brawling and shootouts as possible.

Brown plays Curtis Hook, a small-time thief who finds his way into a million dollars. Before getting cuffed for the job, he manages to hide the money at an abandoned amusement park. In jail on a misdemeanor, all he has to do is bide is time until he is released, and become a rich man. But alas, the local mob syndicate has put a hit out on him, which the white supremacists are eager to collect on. While fighting for his life, he learns that the amusement park will be demolished, and his fortune with it…

Director Jonathan Kaplan had earned his Corman spurs with the sexploitation-ers Night Call Nurses (1972) and The Student Teachers (1973), learning to favor speed and spectacle over anything else. The Slams careens along with relentless action, from the opening shoot-out to the wildly intricate jailbreak that dominates the last third. He barrels forward with handheld camera and the ever-present zoom, always goosing the action with one or the other. Brown confident and cocksure as Hook, radiating arrogant calm rather than fading into the backdrop as in The Split. In the parade of fight scenes, which include inventive tortures like molten steel getting poured down a man’s throat, he gets to display his quick-twitch athleticism and penchant for kidney shots, getting especially brutal with the freakishly tall supremacist Glover (Ted Glover), whom he leaves writhing in pain at the end of almost every scene.

The cast is filled with pungent turns, including Roland Bob Harris as a skin-crawlingly obsequious Captain, Quinn K. Redeker as the short-fused warden, Betty Cole as Hook’s wise mother (“You know you can’t mess with the man!”), Paul Harris as  sleepy-eyed pimp Barney, and an indelible cameo by Joe Dante fixture Dick Miller as an incredulous cab driver. A relentlessly entertaining action movie, it presents Jim Brown at the peak of his star power. While never as elegant and jaw-dropping as his play on the field, his performances from this period hold a brusque, brutal charm (similar to Jason Statham’s current run), while his fight scenes should be objects of rapt contemplation.

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